AFTER enduring three years of criticism that he is not up to the job of managing United States foreign policy, President Clinton suddenly finds himself basking in the unaccustomed glow of success.
From the Middle East to Haiti, from Bosnia to North Korea, crises that have vexed Mr. Clinton since he took office are showing signs of easing - at least in part because of his own interventions. His biggest achievements are fragile, subject to events he cannot control. Even so, they have provided a welcome boost on the eve of a crucial election campaign.
As he begins his run for a second term, administration officials and outside admirers describe a president who has grown on the job, who devotes considerable time to foreign policy, and who has translated three years of experience into a string of significant achievements.
"There's no question that as he has worked on the issues in a complicated new world, his knowledge of them has deepened," says Clinton's national security adviser Anthony Lake. "His management of the issues within the government and his relations with foreign leaders have become masterful."
But critics see another Clinton, a chief executive who remains primarily focused on domestic issues,whose foreign-policy flip-flops have lowered US prestige abroad, and whose successes have often stemmed from mere luck, Republican pressure, or - as in the Middle East - the groundwork laid by previous administrations.
Like the proverbial monkey with the typewriter who eventually comes up with "Hamlet," charges one critic, Clinton has often stumbled into success.
"With enough problems and enough policies, something is bound to work," says the critic, a congressional source, who notes it took three years of trial and error before the administration finally came up with a viable policy toward Bosnia - a policy, he says, that could have been invoked two years earlier.
Skeptics also complain that Clinton has allowed relations with the countries most crucial to US interests, including Russia, China, and Japan, to fall into a simultaneous state of disrepair - a problem Clinton's defenders say would be made even worse by the harder-line, more unilateralist policies of the GOP.
"They've learned some things, including how to use force more effectively in places like Haiti and Bosnia," acknowledges Peter Rodman, a leading GOP strategist and director of national-security programs at the Nixon Center for Peace and Justice in Washington. "But fairly or unfairly, the public impression will continue to be the conventional wisdom that his team is not really the master of these issues. That impression may be ineradicable at this stage."
In an attempt to eradicate it, Clinton is likely to trumpet a series of recent foreign policy successes:
*In Bosnia, a US plan for NATO airstrikes, combined with aggressive US diplomacy, haS significantly improved the chances for a peace settlement.
*In Haiti, a fragile calm holds one year after US troops restored the democratically elected president and ended three years of military dictatorship.
*In the Middle East, US advice and prodding have brought Israel and Syria to the bargaining table and Israelis and Palestinians to the conclusion of a historic agreement on Palestinian self-rule.
*In North Korea, the US has put a long-term framework in place to contain the Communist nation's nuclear-weapons ambitions.
Administration officials also point to Clinton's role in passing two major trade treaties, containing Iraq, encouraging peace talks in Northern Ireland, and dismantling Russia's nuclear weapons.
With reservations, critics acknowledge some of Clinton's recent successes but say his individual accomplishments still don't add up to a comprehensible whole.
"From the beginning till now, the administration has not had a vision of America's role in the world, a clear sense of what it wants to accomplish and how it wants to accomplish it," says the congressional source.
Pointing to a problem that goes back to the last two years of the Bush administration, Clinton officials respond that it is simply far harder to define national interests and simple foreign-policy themes since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"It's a much more complicated world than it was during the cold war, but that doesn't mean there are no central purposes" to Clinton's foreign policy, says Mr. Lake, who cites two: curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and promoting democracy and markets for US goods abroad.
"No president in history has opened as many markets as this one," he adds.
The good news for Clinton is that he now has enough successes in hand to blunt election-year criticism from Republicans that he has been an inept custodian of the nation's security.
The bad news is that several of his biggest foreign-policy triumphs are so fragile that they could be undone overnight. Haiti could yet devolve into anarchy.
The Middle East peace process could stall. Bosnia could again spin out of control. North Korea could still decide to back out of its nuclear accord with Washington.
"They're all vulnerable to events that are beyond our control," notes Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
Another administration source says Clinton now spends an "inordinate" amount of time on foreign policy, is "completely conversant with the issues," and is "driving the train." As an example, he points to the recent change in US Bosnia policy, which he describes as the "direct result of Clinton pulling the team together and saying, 'I want forward movement. Find a way to make this happen.'"
"His instincts are pretty good when he brings them into play, but his [foreign policy making] structure lets him down badly," responds the congressional source, who says Clinton's advisers involve him in too many day-to-day matters instead of focusing on the overarching strategic decisions only a president can make.
One commentator notes that Clinton got off to a bad start because as a candidate he advocated policies he was unable to implement as president. One example: holding China's preferential trade status hostage to human rights improvements.
"They started off with a set of ambitions that were totally unrealistic," says David Hendrickson, who teaches political science at Colorado College. "But they've resolved a lot of the contradictions in their policies since then."
In the end, critics say, it has been less Clinton's mastery of events than his ability to learn from events that put his foreign policy on a more even keel, as Bosnia suggests.
"You have to give the administration credit in the case of Bosnia," says Mr. Maynes. "They were headed over a cliff but had enough bureaucratic understanding to see where they were headed, draw up short, and come up with a new approach."
"If Clinton pursues the new policy to its conclusion he'll have a big success on his hands," concludes the Congressional source. "If he continues to wing it, then he'll squander a big opportunity."